Music Of The Greeks : Scales

When we think of Greece, it is Athens, the center of Greek art and culture, that comes to mind. An ancient city, Athens, as history teaches us. The record is that it was founded by Cecrops, who brought a colony from Egypt, in 1556 B. C., a period when Egypt was a centre of power, wealth, education and science. Therefore we infer that these colonists brought with them to Greece the ordinary, popular music and instruments to which they had become accustomed in their home. But there was an older Greece ; for late discoveries show that there were five cities, each built upon the ruins of an older city, the first one going back to 2500 B. C. These earlier inhabitants, themselves an offshoot of the great Aryan race, were absorbed by the colonists.

Music and Myth in Greece.—The beginnings of music in Greece are mingled with myths : Pan, Apollo, Mercury, Athene and others appear as the patrons and exemplars of the musical art. Aside from the names of the mythical gods and goddesses, there are names of human beings that stand out with clearness. These early musicians were singers or bards who chanted the songs composed in honor of chiefs and tribal heroes. Such were Hyagnis, 1506 B. C., Marsyas, his son, and Olympus the elder, Orpheus, Musæus (1426 B. C.), chief of the Eleusinian mysteries, Linus, Amphion, Thaletes, whose songs were favorites of Pythagoras; the greatest of these bards was the blind Homer, to whom the date 900 B. C. is assigned. “By the Greeks, music as an art was considered an aid in regulating by rule the inflections of the voice, to mark the places of emphasis, and to define the pauses in the recitation of their epic poetry; and the rhythm of their songs followed strictly laws that had been laid down; innovation was reprehended, and even prohibited.”

Early Greek Musicians – and Writers.—The earliest musician’s name met with in the annals of music is that of Terpander’(676 B. C.), who is said to have increased the number of strings on the lyre from four to seven. Next in order was Pythagoras (585-505 B. C.), who added an eighth string to the lyre. He was called the discoverer of the Tetra-chord, which is still known by this name, the inventor or discoverer of the Octave Scale, also the discoverer of the ratios of the consonances; but there is no doubt that he learned all these things during his sojourn in Egypt. He is also credited with the invention of the Canon or Monochord with movable bridges, a contrivance still in use for investigating the ratios of intervals. Unfortunately none of the writings—if any ever existed—of Pythagoras have come down to us. Our knowledge of his theories is second-hand, gathered from the writings of his disciples. Pythagoras seems to have studied sound more in the manner of the acoustician than of the musician; hence his followers, or rather those who called themselves by his name, were more concerned with the ratios of sounds than with their musical effects.

Among the great philosophers who treated on music, Aristotle(384 B. C.) holds an important place. We find his theories expressed in one of his works called “Problems.” A pupil of his-Aristoxenus (350-320 13. C.), has left the most valuable treatise on music, of any of the ancients, the oldest musical work known at the present time; it is, unfortunately, not complete. Aristoxenus was a practical, in addition to being a theoretical musician ; he thought that the ear was the final court of appeal in matters musical. Hence the musical world was divided into two factions : the Pythagoreans, who held that music was purely a matter for arithmetical investigation, and the Aristoxenians, who claimed that the chief end of music was to be listened to. This dispute lasted for many centuries. Boethius, the Roman philosopher, in his writings takes sides with the Pythagoreans and pours contempt on the mere musician. The successors of the Pythagoreans are even yet not extinct, as every now and again some wiseacre turns up with a scheme to secure just intonation, at the price of losing all that music has gained under our present system. Plato (43o B. C.), the greatest of philosophers, has much to say about music; but these sayings are largely incomprehensible to modern understandings. Euclid (323 B. C.), the great mathematician, treated largely of music. Aristides Quintilianus was another author of great weight. Plutarch, in his Symposia, has one devoted to music, but unfortunately the meaning of these authors is often so obscure that it can-not now be discovered. Alexandria, in Egypt, came into prominence in music when the great library was founded there by Alexander the Great, in 332 B. C. Eratosthenes (276-196 B. C.), the librarian, figures in the mathematics of music. When we reach the Christian Era, we meet with two more writers, Didymus (A. D. 6o), who introduced the “minor” tone into the scale, and Claudius Ptolemy (A. D. 130).

The Music of Ancient Greece the Foundation of Modern European Music.—Although the history of European music properly begins with the music of Ancient Greece, we are still very ignorant of the subject, owing to the fact that there is not in existence a note of music anterior to the Christian Era. But lately, in the ancient treasure house at Delphi, a hymn was found inscribed in marble on the inner wall. Mr. J. P. Mahaffy, an authority in matters pertaining to Greek literature, says : “The time is given by the metre, a long syllable and three short, variously placed, or two long and a short between them, in every case 5-8 in a measure. . . . As regards the accompaniment or harmonizing of the air, there is none extant. [As to the melody] although there is rhythm and even a recurrence of phrases to mark the close of the period, nothing worthy of being called melody in any modern sense is to be found.” The inscription dates from the third century before Christ, is a hymn to Apollo and the Muses, and consists of phrases equal to eighty measures in our modern reckoning. The blank spaces in the measure were filled in by an instrument, probably the cithara. Our knowledge is confined to the treatises of mathematicians and musicians, previously mentioned, and these works are often so obscure that there is much uncertainty as to their meaning. Besides, these writings are scattered over a period of about Boo years ; that is, from 585 B. C., the date of Pythagoras, to 130 A. D., the date of Claudius Ptolemy. Numberless changes took place in the art in the course of this long period; hence the attempt to elucidate a homogeneous system by comparing these writings is about as hopeless as would be the attempt to deduce the modern system of music from the collocation of the works of Guido and Hucbald of the loth century with those of Richter and Prout in the 19th.

We owe much to the labors of these bygone writers; in fact, the Greek system of music is the foundation upon which the modern system is the superstructure. No attempt will be made here to settle the many disputed points that have puzzled the learned for ten or more centuries, but a clear and concise account of all that is necessary to an under-standing of the place of this system in the historical development of music will be given.

Formation of the Greek Scale.—The Greek Scale was founded on a tetrachord or succession of four sounds, arranged as follows : E (half tone) F (whole tone) G (whole tone). A It is commonly believed that these letters written on the bass staff, thus represent the exact pitch, as near as may be, of this tetra-chord. In early times the lyre was tuned to these four sounds, and was called the Tetrachordon; that is, four strings. This gracefully shaped instrument has remained to this day the symbol of music. This limited scale was ex-tended by adding another tetrachord, which began with the last note of the first tetrachord, thus :

Making a scale of seven sounds, called the scale of Conjunct or Joined Tetrachords; also from its seven strings, the Heptachord scale. The next step was to take in the limit of the octave. The first way adopted was to raise the highest string a whole tone, thus making it the octave of the lowest ; the sixth string was also raised a whole tone to make it a whole tone below the seventh. The result was a scale of seven sounds with one degree omitted, thus:

A—B-flat (C) D E E—F GA

The next form was : E—F G A B (C) D E

It will be seen that in this scale the second tetrachord be-gins a whole tone above the first, instead of beginning with the final of the first. It is therefore called the scale of Disjunct or Separated Tetrachords. The missing sound (C) is here added and the octave scale is complete. When the lyre had seven strings, the middle string, that is, the fourth, counting from either end, was called Mese, which means “middle”; but this word soon gained a secondary meaning which, in time, became the most important, viz.: Key-note.

The lesser Perfect System.—There was in use at the same time a scale called the Lesser Perfect System, which was made from the conjunct seven-note scale by adding another conjunct tetrachord below, thus:

A—B-flat C D E—F G A

(A) B—C DE

Then A was added below the first tetrachord to make an octave with the note Mese. This A was the lowest sound admitted in the Greek System. It was the Romans who gave to this series of sounds the first seven letters of the alphabet, which they still retain. This octave (A to A) is also the origin of our natural minor scale. This Lesser System was the scale used in the Temple rites. It continued to be used for this purpose long after the system about to be described was invented.

The Greater Perfect System.—This was made from the disjunct octave by adding a conjunct tetrachord below and one above, thus :

E—F G A .’


The A below was also added, thus making a scale two octaves in extent. In later times the disjunct tetrachord, B—C—D—E, was added at the top. This E was the highest note admitted in the Greek System ; consequently, their music never exceeded the limits of two octaves and a fifth, and the sounds included in these systems were as follows.

Peculiar interest attaches to this series of sounds, be-cause in the Middle Ages they were supposed to be the only sounds admitted by the Greeks. This accounts for the fact that B was the first note that it was considered right to use in two forms.

The Greek Scales.—The Greeks did not by any means con-fine themselves to these sounds, but changed the pitch of the starting note just as we do with our scales; in other words, both of these systems might be transposed. There-fore they not only had all the sounds at: command that we have, but as their scales were (theoretically, at least) tuned acoustically true,. they had a” great many more. But their scales were all diatonic (the scales they called Chromatic and Enharmonic will be explained later), they were all like our natural minor. When they said “Dorian Scale” they meant just what we mean when we say scale of D Minor; Phrygian Scale meant E minor; Lydian Scale, F-sharp minor ; Mixo-Lydian, G Minor. In addition to these four scales there were three that began a fourth below, one a fourth below the Dorian, called the Hypo-Dorian, A minor ; a fourth below the Phrygian, called the Hypo-Phrygian, B minor; and a fourth below the Lydian, called Hypo-Lydian, C-sharp minor ; these were the standard scales of Greek music. These names, Dorian, etc., were retained in the Ecclesiastical System, but the mistake was made of sup-posing that the Greeks used only the fixed sounds given by the untransposed Greater System. Hence the Church Dorian has B natural, not B-flat; the Church Phrygian, F natural, not F sharp ; and the Church Lydian begins on F natural, instead of on F sharp. Hence, no two church scales are alike in the positions of the halftones.